Despite not being a game developer or even a player, Tom Clancy changed games. In the first part of our two-part series, we examined how Clancy and former naval officer Larry Bond used the tabletop game Harpoon to in his novel Red Storm Rising. But a decade later it was another red storm that would establish Clancy’s legacy in the videogame world – Red Storm Entertainment. And once again, Clancy would partner with a Cold War-era naval officer to bring his books to life.
Doug Littlejohns met Clancy in the mid-1980s when he was still an officer in the British Navy. They admired each other, Littlejohns because The Hunt for Red October fascinated him, and Clancy because Littlejohns was a Clancy character made flesh – a life-long submarine officer whose exploits are as legendary as they are classified. For example, if you cross-reference British Navy documents with the book Blind Man’s Bluff you can deduce Littlejohns was probably commanding the nuclear attack sub HMS Sceptre when it collided with a Soviet sub on a shadowing operation. If true, it wouldn’t have been his first crisis at sea. Earlier in his career, he served on a diesel sub that sprang a leak at maximum depth while chasing a Russian across the Mediterranean. In another incident, his nuclear boat rammed a whale carcass deep beneath the ocean – the shock was so great his sonar operator had a panic attack in the control room. Commodore Littlejohns served 30 years in the Royal Navy, participating in both the Falklands War and the Persian Gulf War, and twice received decorations from Queen Elizabeth II. Most of what he did to deserve them is classified.
When Littlejohns first met Clancy at a Naval officers’ dinner in Virginia, he said of Red October: “You’ve put stuff in your book that if I talked about it would see me locked up in the Tower of London.” To Clancy’s grateful amusement, Littlejohns then listed the book’s technical errors. The two became friends and golf partners, even though the Commodore refused to give up any details Clancy could use in his books.
Their friendship turned professional after Littlejohns left the Navy and Clancy recruited him as an advisor to the submarine videogame SSN, a companion piece to his novel of the same name. The professional synthesis worked so well that when Clancy decided to found a videogame studio, he called Littlejohns. A former naval commander might seem an odd choice for that role, but the Commodore had a degree in computer science and an aggressive personality Clancy admired. “Doug is a leader, not a manager,” said Clancy in a 1999 interview with Forbes ASAP. “He was my only real choice.”
“Tom was very happy having Doug Littlejohns heading up the company,” recalls Larry Bond, the game developer and former naval officer who co-authored Red Storm Rising. “His love of submariners was satisfied by having a British submariner running the show.”
That was Clancy’s whole point. Rather than the absentee boss that the gaming community has sometimes painted him as, Clancy exerted his influence over Red Storm not through being involved in every decision, but by handpicking the man who’d lead the company. The British Navy, Bond explains, trains their officers differently than the U.S. does. While American submarine officers are generalists who serve in many departments on their way to command, the British sub officers are subject experts. “Everything aft of the reactor bulkhead is propulsion specialty,” says Bond. “Everything forward of the reactor bulkhead is tactics.” That means that British submarine commanders have experience leading diverse teams of specialists – perfect, in other words, for running a game company full of artists, programmers and designers.
With Clancy as chairman of the board, Littlejohns as CEO and an investment from VIRTUS Corporation that had developed SSN, they formed Red Storm Entertainment.
Littlejohns structured Red Storm like a Royal Navy submarine, dividing employees into teams so they could develop multiple games at once. He cultivated an informal atmosphere and hosted weekly beer sessions where employees could ask upper management questions. Employees, he emphasized, were specialists that should be trusted to do their jobs without interference. His leadership style was decisive and emphasized multiple backup plans. With Littlejohns as the man on the ground and Clancy calling the shots as chairman of the board, Red Storm saw its first major success.
Red Storm struggled to find its feet for the first few years, as most studios do. Early efforts were strategy games based on the Power Plays novels, including the Risk-like Politika and the corporate espionage-themed ruthless.com. The studio also branched out beyond Clancy, since Littlejohns wanted the company to diversify its IP. But when the company eventually hit it big, it was with a Clancy title: Rainbow Six hit store shelves in 1998, redefining the FPS genre forever.
Rainbow Six was brashly innovative. While most games dropped the player in shooting, in R6 the player won every mission in the planning stage, figuring out how to best execute an attack in order to succeed and minimize casualties (not only did it feature permadeath, but the player could be killed in one hit). Flashbangs and door-breaching charges played major roles and the team pulled from Clancy’s novel research during development. The game had enough verisimilitude that the sequel, Rogue Spear got an expansion pack designed as a training simulator for SWAT teams and counter-terrorism units. That level of realism was unusual for games at the time – and would become a hallmark of the military FPS going forward.
According to Richard Dansky, who’s spent over a decade as a game writer for Red Storm, Clancy’s technical writing style shaped how the team approached approaches games set in his universe. “Having that level of attention to detail – not only in the gear, but also in the character models, the language, the tactics, etc. – goes a long way toward making a game feel real, and thus believable. Even something as simple as saying “SR-25” as opposed to “sniper rifle” gives a game asset specificity and weight. It reinforces the player fantasy that they’re accessing the deep knowledge of that world.” That specificity became the Tom Clancy game signature, and propelled Red Storm headfirst into a genre that barely existed: the military shooter.
Rainbow Six marked the moment when Clancy stopped being a writer who’d invested in games, and started being a game brand unto himself. By the time Richard Dansky came to Red Storm in the late 1990s, Clancy was getting less involved with individual games and letting the studio run itself. The big man’s departure left writers like Dansky the challenge of boiling down what made a Clancy book special and translating that into an interactive world.
“One of the great things about Mr. Clancy’s writing was that it provided such very clear benchmarks,” says Dansky. “So looking at a story or a character, it was intuitive to be able to say “this is Clancy” or “this isn’t.” The technothriller edge, the plausibility – all of our stories were of course heavily researched … the emphasis on human skill and training as opposed to just relying on the tech, and the idea that there was a positive goal to what the Ghosts or Team Rainbow were doing.” While game plots no longer came from Clancy and weren’t tied to his novel releases, he still reviewed the games’ stories for plausibility.
In August of 2000, Ubisoft purchased Red Storm Entertainment as well as the right to use Clancy’s name as part of an expanded brand. Clancy’s involvement, already cut down, became more advisory and Doug Littlejohns returned to England. Gamers have criticized the move ever since, claiming that in selling Red Storm, Clancy was putting his name on products that were at best an afterthought, at worst a cash grab. It’s a simplistic presupposition that doesn’t tell the whole story. “He was always interested in Red Storm,” says Larry Bond. “I don’t think he was a gamer per se, [but] he was interested in the games as quality products. He was interested in, obviously, their commercial success, but to say Tom was a gamer or not misses the point. Yeah he lent his name to the enterprise and that’s only fair, since it was Tom Clancy’s enterprise. Any of those games had his storyteller’s input in it somewhere.”
Indeed, the criticism that Clancy wasn’t elbow-deep in his game series ignores two crucial facts: first, that he was a writer not a game producer. Researching and writing novels takes a great deal of effort, and Clancy couldn’t devote time and energy to running a game studio. Second, by 2000 Clancy had already written two decades worth of novels for Red Storm to pull from, and would publish more books after that – meaning he was still ultimately the creative head, the north star for his larger brand and actively expanding the world. Tom Clancy wasn’t at the helm of his game franchise because he was needed elsewhere – writing the novels that inspired it.
As Ubisoft took over Red Storm, Clancy games grew and expanded. The Ghost Recon series brought the tactical shooter to console audiences. Splinter Cell aimed to create a stealth series that would rival PS3 system-seller Metal Gear Solid. It turned out that Clancy’s technology and process-focused novels – sometimes derided as technical manuals by literary critics – were a perfect fit for a medium that was also obsessed with gadgets, weapons and tactical advantage. While it’s true the series has drifted from its more strategic origins, Clancy games have always held onto that extra layer of planning that set them apart. While other military games created follow-the-leader cinematic moments, Clancy games often put the player in the driver’s seat and allowed him or her to make the decisions. It’s notable that in a market where the term “licensed title” is shorthand for poor quality, Clancy games deliver consistently excellent adaptations the author’s universe.
Controversy, of course, followed the series too. The mayor of Las Vegas expressed displeasure at his city’s depiction as a terror attack victim. The interactive interrogation and torture scenes in Splinter Cell: Conviction polarized game critics who felt that the violence misinformed the audience about the efficacy of torture. I myself have criticized how the GRAW and Rainbow Six: Vegas series trade off sensationalist fears about Mexico.
On the other hand, though, the Clancy franchise has always felt more nuanced than its brethren. Rainbow Six by its very nature featured an international team, and both Ghost Recon and R6 have featured playable women characters for years. Where the Modern Warfare series tends to suggest local allies are useless, the Mexican soldiers in Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter were competent and necessary allies. And while he was most certainly a conservative, Clancy wasn’t the neocon caricature some of his detractors claim. He publically opposed the Iraq War, for example, believing the U.S. lacked suitable provocation for the invasion. His feelings on it were so strong that before the invasion he nearly came to blows with then-Pentagon advisor Richard Perle.
On October 1st of last year, Tom Clancy passed away after a struggle with heart problems. His legacy as a writer and storyteller was never in doubt. He popularized the techno-thriller, widened the field for political suspense novelists and helped heal the rift the Vietnam War had opened between civilians and service members. His legacy to videogames, however, is more specific.
“Tom’s legacy is going to be in creating and having started Red Storm Entertainment and having had a brand succeed,” says Larry Bond. “They were the guys who really created the first-person shooter in my opinion – and that genre is now as strong as any other genre within the market.”
Richard Dansky agrees, calling Clancy’s influence immense. “Without Tom Clancy there’s no Rainbow Six, and without Rainbow Six the tactical shooter as we know it probably wouldn’t exist. And I think it’s fair to say that Red Storm’s been a very influential studio in terms of the gameplay and approaches we’ve pioneered. That’s another part of his legacy, and one that I’ve always been proud to have been a part of.”
And, of course, the Tom Clancy brand will carry on after its creator. Ubisoft Red Storm has been running ops in the Clancyverse for years, and according to Dansky, they’re proud to carry the franchise forward. “Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone else, but the folks I talk with on other teams have always understood and relished the challenge of doing justice to the brand and what it’s stood for over the years. And at the same time, the signposts laid down for us from the very beginning of the brand, those strong hallmarks of “What is Clancy?” will continue to guide us as they always have.” The Clancy brand, he adds, means a lot to the Red Storm team, some of who have worked on the series for over a decade.
From using wargames to test out his theories about Soviet invasions to the founding an influential studio, Tom Clancy changed games and games changed him. Far from a disinterested investor looking to make a buck, he took an active hand in building Red Storm and was the first writer to successfully launch his work as a game brand. His influence to games is immense, and the world he created – one of intrigues and agents, honor and technology – will live on our screens long after him.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.